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Mar
19
2013

From 2006: Charles M. Schulz: His World in Art and Objects.

There’s a recently-published article over at the Hooded Utilitarian blog speculating about the origin of some replacement Peanuts strips “ghosted” by cartoonist Al Plastino in either the late 70s or early 80s. In discussion on Twitter, I mentioned asking Schulz’s widow, Jeannie, about this back when there was a Schulz/Peanuts exhibit here at Wake Forest University. I wrote an article about that exhibit and Jeannie’s talk for The International Journal of Comic Art, but I guess I never posted it to this blog. So, just for fun, six years after the fact, here’s the article. (There’re some pictures and a less formal write-up of the art portion of the show at this post.)

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Charles M. Schulz: His World in Art and Objects.  Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA: Wake Forest University, Charlotte and Philip Hanes Art Gallery, October 7-November 15, 2006

It’s hard to imagine a setting other than The Schulz Museum itself in which one could become more fully immersed in the life’s work of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz than the exhibit Charles M. Schulz: His World in Art and Objects which was on display from October 7th  through November 15th  at Wake Forest University’s Charlotte and Philip Hanes Art Gallery.  The exhibit featured forty-six original Schulz cartoons, a collection of Peanuts memorabilia and press clippings, and a series of guest speakers.

The exhibit opened the evening of October 7th and began with the inaugural talk of the lecture series, given by Derrick Bang, author/editor of a number of Peanuts-related books, including 50 Years of Happiness: A Tribute to Charles M. Schulz and the Li’l Folks collection.  Bang gave a brief but fascinating overview of Schulz’s pre-Peanuts cartooning career, both before and after WWII.  Schulz himself rarely discussed his rejection-riddled pre-Peanuts cartooning career, but Bang noted that the forthcoming SCHULZ: A Biography (by David Michaelis, acclaimed author of the biography N. C. Wyeth) would likely elucidate this period in the artist’s life.  Bang then showed a number of side-by-side comparisons of early single panel Li’l Folks strips that had later been reworked into multi-panel Peanuts strips.  This was by far the most interesting part of the lecture; through it, one could see Schulz beginning to master the rhythm of the four-panel strip while simultaneously developing the graphically pared-down drawing style that became the aesthetic backbone of Peanuts.

After the lecture, the crowd moved into the gallery area for the opening reception which featured a live jazz band playing Vince Guaraldi tunes and a guest appearance by perennial “Snoopy” interpreter/actor Judy Sladky, who has been portraying the character both on dry land and in the ice skating rink since the late seventies.

The main portion of the show was in the downstairs section of the gallery and began at the entranceway with a printed timeline of the important events of Schulz’s life.  Directly following this were several pages from magazines and newspapers including a 1948 Saturday Evening Post page showcasing a Li’l Folks strip and an entire daily comics page from the October 2nd edition of The Washington Post featuring the very first Peanuts strip.

The centerpiece of the exhibit, however, was the amazing collection of original Peanuts strips on display, all of which were on loan from local art collector Stephen R. Turner.  In rarity and sheer quantity, they surpassed the Schulz pieces on display in the touring Masters of American Comics exhibit and, in fact, two of Turner’s pieces had been pulled from the Masters exhibit between its Milwaukee and New York/New Jersey stops in order to be displayed here.   The collection comprises forty-one beautiful Peanuts originals, both daily and Sunday strips, and five original Li’l Folks strips.  One interesting feature of the exhibit was the occasional enlarged reproduction of a final published Peanuts strip mounted beneath an original cartoon of related interest.  In one case, a Peanuts daily strip featuring Patty’s famous “That’s what little girls are made of” face punch to Charlie Brown is shown directly below the earlier Li’l Folks original which had featured the same gag.  On the original, one can even see a notation in Schulz’s hand—“add black eye”—that was realized in the later  Peanuts strip.  (The original Li’l Folks strip above  is one of the most curious items on display, in that it’s a three-panel reworking of a single-panel Li’l Folks strip which was done at the behest of a syndicate Schulz submitted to, which then responded by requesting that the strips be expanded to three, rather than one, panel.  It has not, to the best of my knowledge, ever been printed.)

Interestingly, the majority of  Peanuts originals on display were from the mid to late fifties, which is remarkable as these are some of the rarest and least seen among Schulz’s work (at least until the recent Fantagraphics reprint series).  The fifties strips outnumbered the later strips by a factor of three to one, although the collection spanned Li’l Folks up through a 1987 Peanuts strip.  The older pieces are drawn as large as twenty-three inches across, with the few later strips done at nineteen or so inches, and at this size, Schulz’s beautiful early line work is manifest—precise and deliberate, but lively and never labored.

The end of the downstairs display area featured some “Peanuts-inspired” paintings and the like, but after viewing nearly fifty Schulz originals, I, like most folks, didn’t pay much attention to these pieces and—on opening night at least—the area served mainly as a place for people to pose for pictures with Snoopy.

The upstairs portion of the gallery featured an extensive display of Peanuts memorabilia and some press clippings, mostly about Schulz’s retirement.  Some items I recall specifically were Peanuts records, from the Snoopy vs. The Red Baron to the eighties Flashbeagle record depicting Snoopy dancing in legwarmers (good grief!); a Russian stacking matryoshka doll decorated with hilariously off-model drawings of Peanuts characters;  tons of old editions of Peanuts collections in English as well as in Japanese, Hebrew and German; the much-coveted Snoopy phone; a Snoopy doll in a space suit; as well as pencil sharpeners, teething rings, key chains and a vast array of other Peanuts gewgaws.  While I’m sure hardcore Peanuts collectors were delighted by this spread, I found myself a bit ill at ease with this portion of the exhibit.  Charles Schulz sanctioned—and even embraced—the production and marketing of Peanuts memorabilia, but nonetheless, the inclusion of pop ephemera in an academic gallery setting highlights comics’ still-precarious status in the world of high art, and in particular draws attention to the troubling art/object conflation that can complicate displays of comics art.

Gallery displays of original newspaper comics art fare better than similar displays of comic book art at providing not only a viewing experience but also a reading experience.  Individual strips, whether printed in the paper or seen framed on a wall, are self-contained narrative units that can be read in a way that, say, three non-consecutive Kirby Fantastic Four pages cannot be.  If reading the strips on the walls, though, didn’t provide sufficient Peanuts reading, the exhibit included a bookshelf of Peanuts books free for the reading.  Included were a number of older editions of Peanuts collections as well as all of the to-date published Fantagraphics editions.  A nearby big screen monitor was showing a loop of footage including bits of the animated TV specials and a biography of the artist.

The penultimate lecture of the series was held on October 28th and featured Charles Schulz’s widow, Jeannie Schulz speaking about the life and work of her late husband.  The lecture hall filled quickly and was standing room only by the time the talk began.  The most interesting detail from Mrs. Schulz’s speech was an anecdote relaying how Superman cartoonist Al Plastino had at one point been hired by United Feature Syndicate to draw some sample Peanuts strips.  Although this event has been referred to in print before, it has usually been cast as a bit of “insurance” by the syndicate, just in case Charles Schulz were ill or otherwise unable to turn in strips; Mrs. Schulz, however, stated that the prospect of an alternate artist was being explored because the syndicate felt that Schulz was getting “uppity”—presumably in regard to contractual concerns.  Fortunately, an upper management change at UFS brought with it the abandonment of this plan.

Despite the overall quality of the exhibit, I got the feeling that the Wake Forest University powers-that-be may not have known quite what to make of this event or how to properly promote it, and that consequently the exhibit suffered from a lack of greater exposure a show of this caliber should have received.  There was a curious paucity of signage for the event, with no indication anywhere on campus—or even elsewhere in the Scales Art Building, aside from a few postcards pinned to bulletin boards—that the exhibit was going on.  Only one of Wake Forest’s eighteen art faculty attended the opening.

Not surprisingly, local awareness of the event was initially scanty.  I mentioned the exhibit during a weekly life drawing group I attend which is populated mainly by local professional full-time artists, and not a one had heard of the show.  During the final ten days of the exhibit, however, the local newspaper ran a feature article on the show in the paper’s Arts section (although it was tellingly written not by the paper’s arts writer, but by their pop culture and technology writer).  This, combined with similar last minute features from a local weekly, two regional NPR stations, and the no-brainer addition of a banner for the exhibit on the University’s homepage, helped drum up last-minute interest in the show.

These few qualms notwithstanding, attendance of the exhibit was through the roof by usual gallery standards—reportedly six to seven times usual for the venue.   According to Stephen Turner, “It could have been ten times that,” but if an exhibit that could have been a regional arts coup wound up being “merely” an incredible success, who’s to complain?  Given the artwork on display, certainly not me.

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